Justine Tyerman and her husband warm to the deadline-free realities of life on the road.
I discovered the secret nomad in me somewhere in the South Island. I'm not sure precisely when it happened, possibly while perched on a driftwood log, toasting a dazzling West Coast sunset.
We spent a week in September ambling along South Island roads in a motorhome, stopping on a whim and hiking tracks we had sped past for decades when getting from 'A' to 'B' as fast as possible was the priority.
This time our itinerary was deliciously open-ended and I became intoxicated with the sense of freedom afforded by travelling in a home on wheels. Nicknamed Lucy after the buxom female on the outside of our six-berth JUCY rental, I had visions of running away with her forever and never returning to a life ruled by deadlines and a fixed abode.
It didn't take long to discover we were not alone in this predilection — there was a kinship among motorhomers we encountered on the road, especially those in the 'mature' age-bracket. Lights were flashed, and nods, waves and other friendly gestures exchanged, reinforcing a shared bond of the footloose experience.
How deeply entrenched my nomadic, escapist tendencies had become was revealed in a surprising decision at the end of our idyllic week on the road. We could have either stayed with friends in their luxurious Wanaka home or snuck off for one last night with Lucy on the lake edge. Our friends were incredulous when we turned down their spacious guest suite with a huge spa bath overlooking the lake and a bed about the size of Lucy's living quarters. We invited them to stay with us instead but they declined.
We cruised at a leisurely pace from Christchurch to Queenstown via Arthur's Pass and the West Coast, driving no more than three hours a day. The big rig trundled along smoothly and my husband Chris found the driving effortless. He had a permanent smile on his face.
The daylight hours were spent tramping, cycling and exploring hidden jewels like Okarito Beach and lagoon, the nesting ground of the rare kotuku (white heron). At dusk we cooked simple tasty meals in our fully-equipped kitchen, gazing at a different panorama every evening: the snowy peaks and glaciers of the Southern Alps turning pink and gold at sunset, the dark mirror lakes and storm-blasted beaches of Westland, the swift icy-green rivers that tumble from the mountains to the Tasman Sea.
The unaccustomed sense of freedom took a while to sink in. With Lucy's ample fridge and storage cupboards loaded with food and beverages, meals were only ever minutes away, alleviating the need to search for cafes and restaurants. And with our own comfy beds and bathroom in tow, there was no need to find accommodation and loo stops en route. Such a time saver, so stress-free.
We had mapped out a basic itinerary but the high points were the spontaneous discoveries we made along the way: the spectacular limestone rock formations at Castle Hill en route to Arthur's Pass; the Devil's Punchbowl, a magnificent 131m waterfall high above the Bealey River; a glimpse of the whio or rare blue duck at tranquil Lake Brunner; and mesmerising sunsets and sunrises at remote lakes and beaches.
We stopped off at NZ Glacier Guides' base in Franz Josef in the hope the weather would allow us to fly up on to the glacier by helicopter. The morning flights were cancelled but for once we had time on our side and waited until the clouds cleared. We spent an unforgettable afternoon on the world's steepest, fastest-flowing commercially-guided glacier in perfect conditions, exploring the maze of spectacular blue crevasses, ice caves and fractured chunks and pinnacles with Ngai Tahu Tourism guide Tim Bluett.
We were not so fortunate at Lake Matheson where the mist stayed stubbornly glued to the mountain tops, denying us the famous postcard reflections of Aoraki/Mount Cook and Mount Tasman in the black satin water.
The weather at Jackson Bay at the southern end of the West Coast road was atrocious but the pounding sea just metres away from our camp site added to the adventure. Despite predictions from our friends that we would freeze to death in a motorhome in the South Island in September, we were cosy and warm at all times, tossing out the hot water bottles I had brought with us and throwing open the skylights even in sub-zero temperatures.
En route to Haast, we crossed the wide Arawhata River and saw dozens of whitebaiters on their stands, braving the bleak weather on the opening day of the season.
Beyond the dramatic Gates of Haast, we took the exquisite 30-minute forest walk to the Blue Pools where the glacier-fed Makarora and Blue Rivers meet. The water was startlingly clear and vivid aqua-green rather than blue.
In Wanaka, we hired electric bikes and cycled 50km along the mighty turquoise Clutha River to Luggate and back. It was an incredibly beautiful ride on a sparkling clear day with fresh snow all round, and such a thrill for me to be able to keep up with my super-fit husband for once.
On our last day, we drove over the Crown Range to Arrowtown, where I spent holidays as a child. We walked up the valley towards Macetown and had a picnic lunch beside the Arrow River. That night, I tipped a pocketful of shimmery silver silt into a little jar as a keepsake of my river.
Weeks later, I'm still grappling with a powerful urge to escape again to the slimmed-down version of life where the only decisions were where to stop to hike, bike, eat and camp. I loved the lack of choice. Footwear was a prime example. Every morning, just two options awaited me in Lucy's little wardrobe. Tramping boots or sneakers. And I loved the lack of chores. No housework to do, or lawns and gardens to tend and (almost) no risk of losing things.
It's ironic to spend one's whole life striving for a spacious home with all the mod-cons and once achieved, to want to escape it. Running away is bliss, even for a short time. It's R&R for the body and soul.
IF YOU GO
Franz Josef Glacier Guides NZ run the Glacier Explorer heli-hike expedition.
Justine Tyerman travelled in a JUCY Casa Plus motorhome courtesy of JUCY Rentals.